Today in film history, August 17, 2012, Spike Lee’s polarizing “Red Hook Summer” was released in USA theaters via Variance Films.
After watching the film at the Sundance Film Festival the year it premiered there, I agonized over what to write about it for awhile, and actually almost decided not to even say anything about it at all; but I eventually reached a compromise – to pen something that was more of an investigation into the film, than a more traditional “thumbs up/thumbs down” review.
I intentionally didn’t read any critiques of the film written by others before I eventually saw it because I didn’t want any interference whatsoever; I wanted to go into it as blank and open as possible. Of course I couldn’t completely escape all the chatter on Twitter (primarily) that followed the initial screening of the film; but thankfully all I really learned from what I read and heard was that the post-screening Q&A was intense, and that the film would likely divide audiences sharply. No surprise there; it’s a Spike Lee film, I thought.
I would’ve liked to (and still would like to) have a conversation with Spike Lee after having seen the film more than thrice since its release 4 years ago. I’ve read transcripts of interviews he gave and post-screening Q&As he held, hoping to gain some insight into Spike’s intent with “Red Hook Summer.” Alas, I didn’t learn a lot, though some of the very few revelations were puzzling to me, notably the extent of co-screenwriter James McBride’s contribution to the script (Spike co-wrote), and the specific portions of it that he was assigned to write entirely on his own. I’m being cryptic here for obvious reasons. But there was something about Spike’s deferral to McBride when he was asked specifically about the film’s heavily religious bent and its relation to Spike’s own personal faith, saying, verbatim, “Alllllll the church stuff came from Mr. James McBride,” almost as if to transfer the burden of whatever the consequences of that dominant element of the film are, squarely onto McBride’s shoulders.
I certainly could be misinterpreting; there was no further elaboration on Spike’s part after he dropped the mic in McBride’s lap (so to speak), as he (McBride) went on to tackle the religion question, with a rather personal answer.
I mention this particular revelation because, as already noted, *religion* (an umbrella term that encompasses so much) is a significant component in the film’s narrative, and so, as a Spike Lee joint, I’d expect that he would have a thorough understanding of every single piece of the work (or at least his own interpretation), why it’s there, and how it fits into the overall puzzle that is its story, given that he co-wrote the script. And I wouldn’t expect him to just simply hand questions about that aspect of the story over to his co-screenwriter to address any questions about the unmistakably dominant force that’s driving the narrative. It’s not like it’s just some aside; it IS the movie.
So I would’ve loved to hear or read what his intentions there were – other than, as he said in one Q&A, “This film is what I call another installment in my own chronicles of Brooklyn.”
Ok, but too broad. And I got that part of it anyway; his love for the borough (Red Hook, BK in this specific case) is obvious. But there’s clearly so much more going on here (at least I wanted to believe there is) than just a paean to a city that’s dear to him, and I wish he’d given us something far more insightful that would assist in our understanding of the film. But that’s just not what Spike Lee does. He oddly refuses to discuss in-depth his work, with his audience.
I’m certainly not the dumbest guy in the world, but I know that I’m also not the smartest in the world, and I’m continuously learning what I don’t already know, or putting myself in positions that challenge what I do know. So after seeing the film several times, and letting it sit with me for a little bit after each screening, the questions I kept asking myself, and that I’m still asking are: did I just miss something here? Is there more to the film than what I understood it to be after screening it, that maybe just went completely over my head? Is it an allegory? Something metaphorical? What does it all mean? What’s the point of it all? Should I even care? Does the filmmaker himself care whether or not I care?
It’s a film I was anticipating since Spike first announced its production a year prior to its release. I wasn’t even planning to attend Sundance that year, and the film’s premiere at the festival was certainly of significant influence on my decision to make the trip. Yes! Spike’s return to form – the expectations by many of what this film would be. So I really wanted to like the film; I was willing to give Spike the benefit of the doubt, because, well, he’s Spike Lee – an intelligent, savvy, bold, fearless human being, who happens to be an artist, and I respect him for all those reasons, and more. He also has a few contemporary film classics on his resume, by the way.
And so I kept/keep digging, looking for some further meaning to all that I saw (eventually reading other reviews – especially those few that were positive – after I saw the film, hoping that I’d be enlightened by them, but I wasn’t), trying to make sense of how a filmmaker of his years and experience could deliver something so, dare I say, sloppy, at times incoherent, heavy-handed and even tedious.
It was baffling to me, and, believe me, I wanted to be wrong about it. It’s only because of the name that follows the “directed by” credit that I actually stayed for the entire 135-minute running time of the film when I saw it at Sundance, otherwise, I likely would’ve joined the mass evacuation of the theater about an hour into it. Many others didn’t afford him that courtesy (of staying through the entire film).
The screening I attended was initially packed; there wasn’t an empty seat in the house, clearly demonstrating a respect for Spike and his work. However, the seats started emptying about 30 minutes into the film; and just about every 30 minutes after that, so much that by the end of the screening, the theater was maybe half-full! No applause; instead, just some laughter from a few of those who saw it all the way though. I just sat there in disbelief, starring at the end credits, wondering what I just saw.
So, imagine my utter disappointment. If I could relieve what I felt in that moment, I would say that I felt robbed. It’s one thing to be provocative with one’s art, but it’s best if that provocation is supported with substance, or with an intent that goes beyond just the act of provoking. Otherwise it just falls flat as pointless. I’m not sure if this was Spike’s agenda; but the negative reaction to it (mine anyway) wasn’t even because I felt provoked. I wasn’t frustrated with the content of the film because it challenged some steadfast belief system of mine. Instead I was annoyed (or actually more astonished) because all that anticipation for the work felt like it was ultimately unwarranted.
I think the only way this film works is if you watch it as something other than a straightforward narrative (it’s a catastrophic failure otherwise, in my opinion), where everything isn’t exactly as it seems; and, again, giving Spike the benefit, wanting to believe that the film’s meanings run far deeper and are much more profound than the obvious; that there was indeed a method to this madness that we call “Red Hook Summer”; some order in all that chaos; possible, alternate interpretations of the film.
In trying to be topical, it addresses so many societal ills (often via lengthy awkward speeches that don’t even pretend to hide their bias, or the fact that they are calls to action, as the film’s characters just seem to serve as mouthpieces for Spike’s ideologies); and so it’s like a mosh pit of ideas that weren’t fully thought through and developed, which makes the work feel amateurish, and definitely not of a veteran.
There just seems to be this “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” air about the film, which is why one of the questions I asked initially was whether or not Spike even cares that I (or we, the audience) care about the film and its characters; and if his intent was to deliver some message, it’s not really clear what that could be exactly.
And I can actually try to understand that “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” air about the film, because, if you’re privy to the occurrences at the aforementioned Q&A session that followed the film’s debut, you’d know how furious and enraged he reportedly came across at certain moments, especially when talking about the the business of film; he criticized everyone and everything in “Red Hook Summer,” even Obama, for whom he would soon after hold a rather pricey fundraising dinner in New York City.
So it’s quite possible that in making the film, he was in a state of resentment, for having to continue to struggle to get his projects financed – upset not only with the studio execs, but also with us, the audience (maybe specifically, the black audience) for the part that we play in influencing this cycle of financing/production/distribution/exhibition of cinema, as he, a veteran of industry had to stand by and watch as one of his fellow black filmmakers (one previously expressed an amount of contempt for) continued to thrive, produce and release multiple films every year, unwaveringly supported by black audiences, generating enormous wealth for himself, while still being able to maintain creative control over his work.
Of course I’m talking about Tyler Perry.
So maybe “Red Hook Summer” was one big Spike Lee kiss-off, given that he hadn’t seen the kind of support from black audiences, nor the financial success, nor wield the kind of power Tyler Perry was (and still is) enjoying at the time.
He even takes a swipe at Tyler Perry in the film; I won’t say how for those who still haven’t seen the film, but you’ll see it when it happens. It comes quickly, but it’s unmistakable. The audience I saw the film with immediately got it, and many laughed.
One could further say that all of “Red Hook Summer,” with its simultaneous critiques and exaltations of Christianity, is in some twisted way, an elegy to Tyler Perry movies, minus all the melodrama. But I’d really hate to believe that the impetus for Spike creating this film was almost entirely based on his contempt/envy/whatever for this one man. And even if it is, it doesn’t work as a critique, praise, or whatever of Tyler Perry.
Is it an unfocused, far-less disciplined companion piece to “Do The Right Thing” (DTRT), even though Spike has repeatedly said that it’s not a sequel to that seminal 1989 film? It’s hard not to make that connection when he revisits Mookie (played again here by Spike), 20+ years later, still delivering pizzas for Sal’s. Also, the film is loaded with a cast of eclectic characters, like DTRT, who interact with one another throughout the film, culminating in a shocking final act – in the case of “Red Hook Summer,” a revelation; although unlike DTRT, the *pay-off* here, after almost 2 hours of a rambling, wearisome buildup, is contemptible and just doesn’t feel *earned*.
Or, as bizarre as it might read, in watching the film, I actually kept thinking of “Alice In Wonderland” of all things. The story of “Red Hook Summer,” in short, centers on a teenage boy sent by his single mother to spend the summer with his preacher grandfather in Red Hook, BK; Red Hook here being Wonderland, and the teenage boy as Alice. His small world in Red Hook is populated with several colorful characters, many of them seemingly just a bit off; almost cartoon-like actually. Even in moments of dread, you never really feel the danger.
The teenage boy interacts with every one of these characters, usually individually, but at times also in groups, with his ultimate desire, as he states repeatedly throughout the film, being to simply go back home to his mother – not so unlike Alice’s mission to find her way home, or even Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” also surrounded by a colorful cast of characters, who’s also trying to get back home.
As in “Alice In Wonderland,” it’s quite possible that Spike’s intent with “Red Hook Summer” was to combine logical and absurd elements to challenge conventions (in this case cinema) and reasoning. And what results of this conflicting combo is an abundance of meaning; which is partly why “Alice In Wonderland” is one of the most analyzed and dissected stories in literary history; interpretations are wide and varied.
But the similarities really end there, because what begins as a film centered around the life of a kid, takes a sharp turn in the final act, shifting its focus squarely onto the preacher grandfather, making him the center of the narrative, and pushing the boy into the periphery. It makes you wonder whose story it is exactly the film is telling here.
So there’s a lack of focus and cohesiveness to the narrative; as I said earlier, a mosh-pit of ideas, and none of them really gets up on stage and shines.
But does that mean Spike’s film is one that might inspire a wealth of interpretations as well? Have you been reading this post?
Or… finally… maybe it’s just not a very good movie, and there’s absolutely nothing more to it than that; an unadulterated failure, suggesting that Spike needs to partner up with a much stronger writer, one that will be fearless enough to challenge him during the process, in the interest of producing better films. He’s zero-for-two with writer James McBride, in my opinion; and I’d actually say that “Miracle at St. Anna” (which McBride also co-wrote) is a superior work to “Red Hook Summer.” Yes, I really would.
I’ll end it there… abrupt, I know, but I could probably write forever, addressing every single piece of this seemingly nonsensical work. Plus it’s hard to talk about the film without giving away plot points, which I’m really trying to avoid, and it would be a much more interesting conversation within a group of people who’ve seen it a few times as well, and thought in-depth about it.
“Red Hook Summer” is available on various home video platforms.